When The Magician Walked onto The Stage They Laughed, But When He Started to Perform...

A short and stout teapot of a man waddled onto the stage. His very image evoked a ripple of laughter among the audience. By the middle of his show, everyone in the auditorium was in rapt attention, some members of the audience even got up from their seats to get closer to the performer and watch more carefully.

If nature ever intended Max Malini to become a magician, not even a mentalist could’ve guessed it. He was a short, squat man with short arms, and hands so small that he couldn’t conceal a standard-size playing card in them. His fingers were so short and pudgy that it seemed impossible that they could perform manipulations requiring finesse. If you didn’t hear his gutteral voice and distorted English, at first view you might guess he must be an opera star or impressario—certainly not a magician.

The magician’s hands were smaller than Donald Trump’s. They were so small that when he palmed a card, part of it protruded and the secret would have been detected had he not resorted to other subterfuges. Malini’s methods were usually simple, but they were always hidden by strong misdirection. He used to sum up this theory of misdirection in the short phrase, “It’s the Eye.” He never made a quick move of any kind. He always did everything slowly (and transparently), but with the strong misdirection he used, he could make these moves slowly and smoothly and they passed unnoticed by all observers; not because they were executed so flawlessly that they were invisible, but because they were executed under strong misdirection.

Despite these obvious drawbacks, he somehow exploited them as strengths. He commanded attention and had an overpowering stage presence. Among people of wealth an distinction, he was a demigod. He rubbed shoulders with President McKinley, President Harding, President Collidge, President Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, John J. Pershing, three Kings of England, the King of Siam, the Duke of Portland, and many others. He was the David Blaine of the early 20th century. Something Max often said was, “You’ve got to mix with people with money if you want to make money.” He certainly practiced what he preached.

Many stories have been told about Malini, and the following one is backed up by Malini himself:

When in London, magician Max Malini frequented Romano’s and became well-known to the clientele. When it became known that he had been commanded to appear at Sandringham by King Edward, on the occasion of Queen Alexandra’s dbirthday, there was much good-advice on the etiquette to be adopted in the Royal presence. Said one client, “Max, whenever the King addresses you, remember to fall on your knees.” Max replied, “On my knees, good, I tink I remember.” Another sportsman said, “Don’t forget to address the King as Your Royal and Sacred Majesty.” “Royal and Sacred Majesty...Good, I remember,” said Max. Another advised, “Keep walking backwards all the time, Max.” “Valk backwards, good..I remember dat,” replied magician Max.

The day after this command performance, his advisers clustered around him at Romano’s, eager to ply him with questions. Max chuckled, “You tink I swallow all dat foolishness. Dis is Max Malini...I know de Royal etiket business all right. Ven de King come up to me an’ say, “Ferry clefer, Mr. Malini, ferry clefer indeed,” I no fall on my knees or say ‘Royal and Sacred tommy-nonsense.’ No, I said, ‘Much obliged Royal Mister,’ and de King he laff and say ‘Haf a cigar’ and I say, ‘You bet.’”  

One of Max’s signature magic routines was the blindfold card stab. A table center stage.  A borrowed pen-knife on the edge of the table, and on the table the cards of an an entire pack were mixed and swirled around and around by a lady in the audience.  The audience would blindfold Max with borrowed hankerchiefs, and at least one time a man in the front row seat tossed his his suit coat over Max’s head and tied a rope around the neck.

The magician then requested the name of a playing card, and when someone called out a playing card, Blindfolded Max stabbed down the knife into the hopelessly mixed face-down cards, then raised it up in the air, so it was seen that he had impaled the correct card.

Max told the lady to scatter the cards around more, then asked for another card to be called out. Again, he stabbed the card correctly. This went on (with some variety, such as stabbing two cards at once, or stabbing it and showing its back to the audience for suspense) until about a dozen cards were stabbed. Malini always stabbed through the final card dramatically and into the table itself. He then tipped the table so that all the remaining cards fell to the stage. The knife was pulled free to disclose the face of the impaled card which was seen to be the final card selected.

Max Malini married Elizabeth Isaacs in Chicago, Illinois. Max traveled throughout his career but generally considered Chicago his real home. He stopped off in Indianapolis long enough to give two shows in the auditorium of the Claypool Hotel and was at that time the best magician in Indianapolis.

Max Malini was one of the most extraordinary personalities in the history of magic.  The legendary magician of the late1800’s, Max Malini was unlike the measured, elegant style and polished demeanor that that could describe most (maybe all) magicians of the era.  

Max once ran up to a statesman (or waddled up to him) and bit a button off the man's suit coat, only to wave his hand over it and restore it. Such was his audacity, and this particular event landed him high end magic shows for politicians.

Magician Max Malini

Jon Finch is one of the most popular magicians in Indianapolis and entertains around the Midwest.

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